Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.
October 14, 2021
2 min read

Depression, stress during pregnancy may impact fetal brain development

Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.
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Depression or maternal stress episodes during pregnancy were linked with placental gene modifications that can lead to potential fetal brain programming, according to a study published in Epigenomics.

“The epigenetic changes we reported are located near genes with known relevance to brain development, providing a potential biological explanation for why children born to women depressed during pregnancy have a greater risk of psychiatric disorders,” Fasil Tekola-Ayele, PhD, an Earl Stadtman Investigator in the epidemiology branch of the division of intramural population health research at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, told Healio.

Fasil Tekola-Ayele

The researchers conducted a genetic analysis on 301 pregnant women who participated in a previous study. Participants responded to questionnaires on their levels of stress and depression throughout their pregnancies and delivered placenta samples after birth for research. They also were assessed at six gestation periods throughout their pregnancy, with the baseline assessment between 8 to 13 weeks and 6 days of gestational age and 5 follow-up visits between 14 to 27 weeks and 6 days; 23 to 31 weeks and 6 days; 29 to 35 weeks and 5 days; 33 to 39 weeks and 6 days; and 37 to 43 weeks and 3 days.

“What is remarkable about our study is that we were able to investigate maternal depression and stress at each of the three trimesters of pregnancy to see whether timing of the depression/stress was relevant,” Paule V. Joseph, CRNP, PhD, chief of sensory science and metabolism in the division of intramural clinical and biological research at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), told Healio.

“We found that most of the methylation changes in placenta were linked to maternal depression during the third trimester, which is conceivable because significant brain development and maturation continues throughout pregnancy and during infancy,” continued Joseph, who is also an NIH Lasker Clinical Research Scholar clinical investigator.

The researchers found that a history of stress was associated with methylation changes in two placental DNA sites, and a history of depression was associated with changes in 16 placental DNA sites. Of the changes associated with depression, two were near genes linked to brain development, suggesting that a child’s long-term mental health could have ties to the presence of maternal depression.

Markos Tesfaye Woldeyohannes

“To date, there are no biomarkers for fetal exposure to depression at important stages of brain development,” Markos Tesfaye Woldeyohannes, MD, PhD, postdoctoral visiting fellow of the NIAAA and NINR, told Healio. “Therefore, further research into the molecular features of placenta may help in developing a biomarker to identify children who are exposed to maternal depression while they are in the womb and hence who may be at risk of mental disorders. Such an advance can open new avenues to early intervention.”